The German and Austrian tradition of holding special markets in the Advent run-up to Christmas is a very old one. The first known reference in Germany is to a Christmas market held in Bautzen in 1384, but even earlier references exist, for example to a market in Vienna in 1294.
Originally, these markets sold meat and other Christmas foodstuffs, but gradually diversified into selling hand-crafted decorations and gifts. This became more common during the Reformation and indeed Martin Luther invented the tradition of giving Christmas presents when he suggested that the day of Christ’s birth was more suitable for gift giving than the traditional saint’s days.
Many German and Austrian cities hold Christmas markets, with Bremen, Cologne, Dresden, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich, Nuremberg, Salzburg and Vienna being the most prominent. Christmas markets in Germany attract 160 million visitors every year, generating income of around 5 billion Euros. A good source of information regarding German Christmas markets is www.germany-christmas-market.org.uk and, of course each town or city will have information on its own website.
One of the oldest markets, and possibly the most famous, is the Christkindlmarkt at Nuremberg, which takes place throughout December in the Hauptmarkt (Main Market Sq.) with its beautiful Schoener Brunnen fountain and ornate Frauenkirche church, whose priest complained in 1616 that no-one was coming to church because they were all busy shopping in the market.
The winter air is filled with the spicy scent of Gluehwein (mulled wine) and Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and there are plenty of opportunities to buy a Nuremberg speciality “Drei in Waeggla” – three small meaty sausages in a crusty roll with lots of mustard. Brooding over the whole scene is the massive Kaiserburg castle – if it snows the atmosphere is straight from a Grimm’s fairy tale.
The quality of the Christmas decorations and gifts here is controlled by the city council, and is extremely high. There is no plastic and glitter here, but rather hand carved and painted wood, or traditional tinware.
When the time comes for a break from the bustle of the market, there are plenty of places nearby to sit down and get a beer. Right by the market on Rathausplatz is Bratwurst Roeslein, a busy beerhall that makes its own sausages and serves a very good selection of Nuremberg specialities at reasonable prices.
If you decide to climb Bergstrasse up to the castle, you will pass the cosy Haus Brauerei Altstadthof, which as its name implies, has its own brewery behind the pub. At the top of the hill, by Albrecht Duerer’s house on Tiergartenertor, is the snug, traditional Schlenkerla tavern, which sells hearty food as well as the Schlenkerla smoked beer from Bamberg. It is also an opportunity to taste Munich’s finest beer, Augustiner Edelstoff, on draft.
Everyone will have their favourite, but it would be hard to argue that the Christmas market in Salzburg is anything other than one of the best, situated as it is in the centre of this beautiful city. Famous as the birthplace of Mozart, Salzburg is also the place where the immortal Christmas carol “Silent Night” was written and first performed, on Christmas Eve 1818.
The market is centred upon Domplatz and Kapitelplatz, two squares right beside the elegant Cathedral. It is a large, busy market, with high quality goods, and festive snow is almost guaranteed. Horse-drawn carriages wait beside the market squares, the horses’ breath steaming in the frozen air, to take tourists on guided tours around the historic city centre. There are plenty of places to get some Gluehwein and a piece of Stollen (Austrian Christmas cake with ground almonds) and many local people wear traditional costume to visit the market.
When a beer break is called for, Salzburg’s biggest brewery’s central beerhall, the Stieglkeller, is a short walk away in Festungsgasse. Alternatively, the Zipfer Bierhaus, an unspoiled traditional tavern near Mozart’s house in Universitaetsplatz is also close at hand. A pleasant 20 minute stroll along the river will take you to the huge Augustiner Brau beerhall, with its attached brewery in Augustinergasse. One of the world’s great beer institutions, Augustiner still serves its superb beer in proper stoneware Steins.
There is another, smaller, Christmas market over the river in Rainerstrasse, behind the Mirabelle Gardens, which is worth a visit, not least because here you may witness the fearsome “Krampuslauf”. The Krampus are wild, scary creatures that inhabit remote Alpine caves and the depths of the forests, and they march at this time of the year. They traditionally accompany St Nicholas on 6th December, to scare and punish children who have been naughty during the year.
To get some idea of what this looks like, search “Krampuslauf” on YouTube. Information regarding times of these events in Salzburg can be found at www.salzburg.info/en/art_culture/advent_new_years_eve/krampus_percht
Click on “Krampus and Perchten Runs”.
You may also see a Krampuslauf at the Munich Christkindlmarkt, an hour’s train journey through the dense, hopefully snow-covered, Bavarian forest. The Munich Christmas market is one of the biggest in Germany, and takes place in the central Marienplatz square, in front of the soaring neo-Gothic Neues Rathaus. Lively throughout the day, the atmosphere is very festive and the delicious smell of grilling bratwurst is everywhere. Again, you will see lots of local people wearing Lederhosen or Dirndl dresses to visit the market.
Munich’s impressive pedestrianized shopping district stretches off in the direction of Neuhauser Strasse, and this is where you will find the Augustiner Grossgaststaette, one of the city’s biggest and best beerhalls. Unrelated to the Salzburg Augustiner brewery, this Augustiner produces Munich’s best beers. In the opposite direction away from the market is the Tal, and within 5 minutes you will come across the Weisses Brauhaus, central Munich’s chief outlet for the Schneider brewery, which specialises in Wheat beer. Both these beerhalls provide hearty Bavarian platefuls which are guaranteed to keep the cold away. There are many other excellent places to sample Munich food and beer within a short walk, especially clustered around the Viktualienmarkt.
Whether or not you buy many of the goods on offer, visiting a German and Austrian Christmas market is a great excuse for a winter city break, and an opportunity to sample some great beer!